Sea Otters: New Book Shares History and Conservation Story of Iconic Mammals

More than any other nonhuman species, it was the sea otter that defined the world’s largest oceanscape prior to the California gold rush.

In addition to the more conventional aspects of the sea otter trade, including Russian expansion in Alaska, British and American trading in the Pacific Northwest, and Spanish colonial ventures along the California coast, the global importance of the species can be seen in its impact on the East Asian maritime fur trade. This trade linked Imperial China, Japan, and indigenous Ainu peoples of the Kurile Islands as early as the fifteenth century.

In Sea Otters: A History, author Richard Ravalli synthesizes anew the sea otter’s complex history of interaction with humans by drawing on new histories of the species that consider international and global factors beyond the fur trade, including sea mammal conservation, Cold War nuclear testing, and environmental tourism. Examining sea otters in a Pacific World context, Ravalli weaves together the story of imperial ambition, greed, and an iconic sea mammal that left a determinative imprint on the modern world.

“Here is the story, richly told, of how these vulnerable mammals—the ermine of Asian markets—were pursued for their lustrous skins and hunted to near extinction. The quest eventually generated a rivalry between seafaring nations and Indigenous peoples along islands and coasts from China to Mexico,”—Barry Gough, professor emeritus of history at Wilfrid Laurier University and author of Pax Britannica: Ruling the Waves and Keeping the Peace before Armageddon.

Ravalli teaches history at William Jessup University. The book—a hardcover volume released in December 2018—is available from the University of Nebraska Press.

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